REVIEW: It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph! (American Blues Theater)

  
  

Feel-good theater with a sincere conscience

  
  

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American Blues Theater presents
   
It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph!
   
Written by Philip Van Doren Stern
Directed by
Marty Higginbotham
at
Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through Dec 31  |  tickets: $32-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

“There’s enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.” That comment on the relativity of wealth is just one of many astonishing déjà vu moments in this old-Its A Wonderful Life - American Blues - Montage picturefashioned 1944 “live radio” broadcast of a soon-to-be-released Hollywood Christmas classic directed by the great Frank Capra. (That 1946 film, of course, went on to become, after Dickens’ parable and the Nativity, the most beloved Christmas story that America ever gave the world.)

Now it’s a worthy Chicago Christmas celebration in its own right. American Blues Theater gifts us with a pitch-perfect recreation of WABT’s Christmas Eve presentation of the story of one man’s salvation from suicide by a clumsy angel who wants to win his wings. This powerful blast from the past is performed in impeccably accurate 40s wigs and costumes by an unimprovable cast of Chicago pros at the collective peak of their careers. It’s feel-good theater with a conscience, not to mention a sing-along before and during the radio show and commercial jingles for local enterprises.

The story–about a bad bank (and slumlord/banker, Mr. Potter) that doesn’t “trust” or invest in its struggling community of Bedford Falls but is ready for a foreclosure whenever it needs a cash infusion–has never seemed so contemporary. An embattled savings and loan director, George Bailey (a bumptious and passionate Kevin R. Kelly) and his adoring and empowering Mary (Gwendolyn Whiteside) clearly make a difference in the world and for the folks around them–even, or especially, when times are hard. That’s when folks without health insurance or with heavy mortgages and bills need all the safety nets their neighbors can provide.

This difference that he makes, of course, George foolishly doubts and denies–until Clarence (incredibly deft John Mohrlein, who ranges from klutzy Clarence to vicious Mr. Kirby at the drop of a script page) shows him how Bedford Falls would have degenerated into Pottersville if George had never been born. The ripple effect, which means that no man is an island, has never been more gloriously depicted than in this reverse “Christmas Carol,” where Ebenezer/George discovers how his absence would be even more destructive to the world than his presence.

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All of this wonderful “Capra-corn” is presented in a seamless 90 minutes, with piano accompaniment by Austin Cook and ingenious Foley effects by Shawn J. Goudie. The nine-member ensemble deliver crowd noises, sound effects, songs and, above all, sincerity. The result is an authentic radio-days recreation that could pass for the real thing, but, even better, works perfectly as a play. It’s a wonderful show!

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

 

 

  
  

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American Blues announces 25th-Anniversary Season

american blues theatre logo 

announces its

* 25th-Anniversary Season Productions *

 

Includes the regional premiere of Rantoul & Die by Mark Roberts (“Two and a Half Men”) and the new annual Blue Ink Playwriting Contest.

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Pictures from most recent production, critically-acclaimed Tobacco Road

November 26 – December 31, 2010

   
  It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph!
   
  Directed by Marty Higganbotham
In the Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago
Featuring ABT Ensemble members Kevin Kelly, Ed Kross, John Mohrlein and Gwendolyn Whiteside
   
  From the original director and Ensemble that brought this holiday tradition to Chicago in 2004.  Join the American Blues family as we take you back to a 1940s radio broadcast of Frank Capra’s holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life, with live Foley sound effects, an original score, and a stellar cast of seven that bring the entire town of Bedford Falls to life.  From the moment you walk through the doors, you will be transported back to the Golden Age of Radio, and experience the story of George Bailey like never before.  Critics called this production “perfect Christmas theater” and “first class holiday fare.”

 

March 2011

   
  American Blues – Collected One Acts
   
  by Tennessee Williams 
In the Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago
Directed by Dennis Zacek, Steve Scott, Brian Russell, Damon Kiely and Heather Meyers
   
  This one-night benefit performance celebrates American playwright Tennessee Williams’ 100th birthday.  These five short plays were selected by Williams’ in the rarely produced 1948 collection entitled “American Blues” to showcase his commitment to the blue-collar worker.  ABT is thrilled to work with directors who have made significant contributions to the success and livelihood of the Blues’ Ensemble theater throughout the 25 years.  ABT will announce the winner of the first annual “Blue Ink” Playwriting prize at this event.

 

April 15 – May 29, 2011

   
  Rantoul & Die
   
  Written by Mark Roberts i/a/w Stephen Eich and Don Foster
In the Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago
Directed by Erin Quigley
Featuring ABT Ensemble members Kate Buddeke, Cheryl Graeff, and Lindsay Jones.  With guest artists Steppenwolf Ensemble members Francis Guinan and Alan Wilder.
   
  From the writer and executive producer of “Two and a Half Men” comes a new play with four of the funniest, ugliest,  and most heartbreakingly real characters ever, all crammed together in a grimy little world that makes the local Dairy Queen and Dante’s Inferno seem one and the same.  The Hollywood reporter calls Rantoul & Die “original and devastatingly funny!” Regional premiere.

 

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   from Tobacco Road  (our review ★★★)
   

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Olympia Dukakis reads for American Blues

By Leah A. Zeldes

Olympia-Dukakis Academy Award-winning actress Olympia Dukakis appears in Chicago Monday, Nov. 16, to read from an upcoming American Blues Theater production. The reading, a passage from ABT’s spring 2010 show, "RIPPED: The Living Newspaper Project" by Eduardo Machado and Rick Cleveland, takes place during a benefit for the newly-reconstituted troupe. Dennis Zacek, artistic director of Victory Gardens Theater, will also read.

Highlights of benefit, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Monday at the Bridgeview Bank, 4753 N. Broadway, also include live blues by Chicago band The Skirts, an auction of such items as local theater tickets and a walk-on Broadway role, food and drinks. Tickets are $75, $125 for VIP admission, which includes an earlier reception with Dukakis.

Dukakis, whose film credits include Steel Magnolias, Mr. Holland’s Opus and Moonstruck, for which she was named Best Supporting Actress, is a long-time friend of ABT ensemble member Carmen Roman. "I’ve watched this company continuously produce incredible, groundbreaking work," Dukakis said. "The 2009/10 season is no exception. I’m honored to be a part of their benefit celebration, and fully support this inspirational Chicago ensemble."

"Starting from scratch without staff and absolutely no money has certainly been a challenge," said ensemble member Gwendolyn Whiteside, part of the company’s executive/artistic/administrator triumvirate, along with Roman and Heather Meyers.

In March, 23 members of the ensemble left American Theater Company, leaving behind a $1 million annual budget and taking back the American Blues name under which that company formed in 1985. The group, which comprised most of ATC’s actors, departed over differences with its artistic director, P.J. Paparelli, who was hired two years ago from Perseverance Theatre in Alaska. Paparelli had reportedly expelled several members of the company and allowed members increasingly less influence on theatrical decision making.

American Blues Theater members include Cleveland, Dawn Bach, Ed Blatchford, Matthew Brumlow, Kate Buddeke, Casey Campbell, Dennis Cockrum, Lauri Dahl, Tom Geraty, Cheryl Graeff, Lindsay Jones, Kevin R. Kelly, Ed Kross, James Leaming, John Mohrlein, Jim Ortlieb, William Payne, Suzanne Petri, Tania Richard, Editha Rosario, John Sterchi and Stef Tovar.

"I believe the work of the ABT ensemble is vital and important to Chicago’s theater community and our city as a whole," Zacek said.